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Aereo Has Landed (in New York): First Impressions

Hands-on with the brand new Web-based TV experience.
March 15, 2012

Aereo came to New York on Wednesday, and as Technology Review’s man in the Big Apple, I took the service for an initial quick spin.

First of all, what is Aereo? It’s a service that streams over-the-air local TV to a device of your choosing (provided, for now, that the device of your choosing is an iOS device or a PC or Mac running Safari). It’s a technological feat Aereo has pulled off by engineering tiny TV antennas and locating them, en masse, in data centers; these data centers can then stream the TV to you instantly over your Internet connection. Aereo is also in a bit of legal hot water, since Aereo is doing all this without paying TV stations a licensing fee that they claim they’re entitled to. TR’s Brian Bergstein has given a good overview of what he calls “a legal show worth watching,” one that has yet to reach its finale.

But that’s beyond my purview here, which is to give you my own impressions of the service. My experience of the service was necessarily limited, since I don’t have an iPad or an Apple TV. I do, however, have an iPhone 4 and a (somewhat aged) MacBook. I took Aereo for a little test drive on each device.

First I went to through my iPhone’s browser—Aereo is not an app, but rather an HTML5 experience—and entered the login information Aereo had given me (it’s invitation-only for now; go to the site to sign up if you live in New York). A pleasantly designed list appeared before my eyes, with the heading “On Right Now.” There were just 27 stations in total to choose from, a reminder that Aereo only trades in over-the-air TV, not cable.

I clicked on a box next to an icon for a TV station that was running an episode of All in the Family at the moment. Clicking on the box for the show gave me the option of streaming it then and there, or recording it for later. (Aereo offers up to 40 hours of cloud-based DVR storage.) I clicked to watch it, and the show appeared in a new window, similar to when you click on a YouTube video.

I found that Aereo has a lot of DVR functionality built in. Even without clicking record, you have the ability to scrub back and forth in a show you’ve been watching. Drawing your finger horizontally rewinds and fast-forward; drawing your finger vertically at the same time varies the scrubbing speed, from ultra-fast to fine-tuned.

Returning to the list of shows, I found I was able to skip ahead to view my local TV schedule for the next two weeks or so. When I clicked on the show and then clicked record, Aereo gave me the option, familiar to DVR users, of just recording that one show, recording all episodes, or recording only new ones. I decided to record a single episode of Rock Center with Brian Williams that was airing at the moment. Aereo offers its users two antennas, so it’s possible to both record one show and stream another at the same time. That meant I’d be able to continue to fiddle with the site while recording.

At that point I turned to my MacBook. I initially tried to activate Aereo on Chrome, but was told that wasn’t an option for now. So I booted up Safari and navigated to Aereo through that browser. I was fairly dazzled by the user interface on the larger screen. A box to the left touted “featured content” (Jay Leno’s smiling mug, at the moment), and gave me the option of clicking over to my recordings. A box to the right allowed me to click through several tabs: there was a Guide, a “Feed” that could someday be populated with social content if I chose to link with Facebook Connect, a search bar, a settings tab, and a tab that told me what my two antennas were up to.

Here, unfortunately, things began to go awry for me. On Safari on my MacBook, I wasn’t actually able to get shows up and running. I clicked on live shows, and though Aereo appeared to register my request, a black box popped up with an interminable “Loading …” at the bottom. The same thing happened when I clicked over to my recordings. Aereo on my MacBook was smart enough to know I had initiated a recording of Rock Center via my iPhone, but when I clicked on the program, again I got that interminable “Loading …” Returning to my iPhone, though, I was able to replay what I had recorded of Rock Center. The picture was very clear, and the audio left little to be desired, for an iPhone experience, at least.

Mine is a rather old MacBook; the service may well work fine on Safari running on newer devices. Will Greenwald of PC Mag, though, encountered similar problems when running the service on Safari on a PC. Greenwald’s review is worth reading, as is Matthew Moskovciak’s at CNET. The latter in particular is something of an expert on cord-cutting, and he was able to take Aereo for a spin on iPad and to test it over Apple TV.

Overall, despite my limited ability to use the service, and my encounters with a few glitches, using Aereo was an exciting experience. “My iPhone just became a TV,” I caught myself saying aloud. I was particular impressed with the elegant design of the user interface, something that I’ve noted is sorely lacking in TV generally

Though Aereo has its disappointments, I was left with an encouraging sense that smartness, in a general sense, was finally encroaching on the TV experience. To take just one example, Aereo’s search feature is intelligent enough that you can search for “comedy on NBC,” and it will pull up a list of—you guessed it—comedies on NBC. I could further add the command “n!” to limit the search to new episodes. By contrast, if I’m in the mood for watching, say, a Gregory Peck movie on my Netflix PS3 app, there’s no simple way for me to perform that search on the device.

Netflix, though, costs just eight bucks a month; Hulu Plus goes for the same. Aereo, by contrast, has the audacity to charge $12 a month—and for content that, being over-the-air, can be caught by an antenna for free! As Aereo stands poised to potentially come to your own city soon—Bary Diller, an investor, says he wants to see it in 100 cities this year. You may be wondering, is it worth it?

For some people, yes; for others, no—and you will pretty much know who you are. The flow-chart determining whether Aereo is a sound investment for you is probably absurdly complicated. How crucial to you is viewing sports? Are you a recent college graduate who doesn’t have a TV to begin with, but was given an iPad as a gift? Do you have Apple TV? Might you get one? Does your home or apartment get good reception on a traditional antenna, or do you have the patience to figure out the answer to that question via trial-and-error? How important are cable shows to you? How essential is it that you see shows as they air, as opposed to one or two or four days later?

For myself, probably fully half the shows I watch with any real regularity are on HBO; the other half are, by and large, network comedies that appear on Hulu not long after they air, and I certainly don’t mind the slight wait. (In fact, I’m weeks behind on Parks and Rec; don’t tell me what happens!) On those two counts already, I can see that Aereo won’t be worth my money.

For many people, though, Aereo’s DVR functionality alone may be worth the price of admission. DVR options for over-the-air TV leave something to be desired, points out PC Mag’s Sascha Segan. You can fork over a couple hundred bucks for a DVR without a monthly fee, despite the fact that most are poorly reviewed on Amazon. Or you can pony up $99 plus $20 per month for TiVo’s Premiere DVR box, which is more favorably reviewed.

Next to $12 a month, those prices look pretty harsh. Aereo’s main contribution in the evolution of television, at least in the short term, may just be a disruption of the DVR market.

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